When I was little, my Dad made the strong bars for the new orangutan cage at the local zoo. We got the special treat of going ‘back stage’ to see the orangutan. I remember lots of concrete, metal bars, a pile of straw and being told not to go close as the orangutan could reach out and grab us. I think it was pretty scary. Now, of course, I think the poor lonely creature probably wanted to reach out and touch someone else. Back in a time when orangutans were pretty unknown, I remember feeling very pleased to have had this encounter – it made me feel a bit out of the ordinary – but also a bit sad.
Nowadays, I really am out of the ordinary – particularly about food. Eating orangutans is absolutely, definitely not something I will do. However, most people are doing so without thinking. Enjoyed a Magnum ice cream on a hot day? Lays crisps with evening drinks? Marie biscuits for morning tea? Horlicks before bed? Nutella on your toast? All these things and a gazillion more, contain palm oil. Apparently approximately 50% of products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil. By default, they contain orangutan.
Last week, I went out without packing a snack. I stopped at the garage for fuel so popped into the shop to see if I could find something to nibble on. There was NOTHING, absolutely nothing, without palm oil listed in the fine print. The chocs, sweets and chips I knew about but I was aghast to find all the packets of peanuts, cashews and almonds also contained palm oil. I settled for a coke – another evil, but for another story.
What’s the issue with Palm Oil?
Palm oil use is responsible for mass deforestation and a decline in Orangutan populations. When tropical forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, not only does it drive extinction of plants and animal species (about 20 000 orangutans dead in the last 10 years and only about 40 000 left in the wild) but deforestation on this scale releases huge amounts of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere, contributing directly to climate change. Deforestation is the second largest manmade source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, after fossil fuel burning. Indonesia is now the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. These original forests are ‘carbon sinks’ which store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world. Clever humans – just when we need to be storing as much carbon as we possibly can!
It’s estimated that 98% of Indonesian forest will be gone within the next 10 years due to palm oil plantations. For cheap oil? Cheap only because we are (still) raiding the planet – the true cost is borne by the environment and though not included right now, we will all pay for the destruction of functioning ecosystems.
So what can we eat or use?
Fortunately for me, I don’t eat sweets, so that is not such a hard one to avoid. Crisps I do love and have found that Flanagans doesn’t contain palm oil or the veggie chips from Woolies – sweet potato/beetroot. Paul makes ice cream from scratch, so I don’t have to worry about that, but the Madagascan Vanilla one from Woolies is safe to buy. Grabbing a chocolate bar in the queue is virtually out of the question. Paul has discovered that the Ayeshire Cream Fudge chocolate bar from Woolies is both locally made and palm oil free.
Biscuits, cakes and muffins are a real challenge, if you buy those. Anything with Vegetable Oil listed as an ingredient is suspicious – if it does not specify sunflower/canola/whatever, then it is very likely palm oil. The Mooi Plaas Wholewheat & Cranberry and Butter Yoghurt rusks have no palm oil, but others in their range do. Even one of our favourite baked treats from the Karkloof Farmers Market contains commercial biscuits as a base – so you really do need to ask about ingredients. We were aghast to discover that even some of Fry’s Foods (those vegetarian protein alternative products) contained palm oil. We wrote to them and were told they were had stopped using palm oil in everything besides their pastry products. We check the label every time.
Toothpaste, cosmetics and soap – well, I use small production, organic, preferably local ones (Pure Beginnings, African Organics) but you still need to check. I like ESSE moisturiser (the creators are in Richmond) so wrote to them to ask about palm oil. They replied right away (which was impressive), “We don’t add palm oil as an ingredient to any of our products but palm oil is sometimes used in the production of one of our emulsifiers. The German supplier of this emulsifier generally uses coconut oil but sometimes switches source. Under such a circumstance their suppliers of palm oil are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or are otherwise certified sustainable palm oil producers (CSPO).” I am comfortable with that.
Of course, besides voting with our money, we can also speak up about the issue. Online petitions have had some major victories. Betty Crocker in America (cakes) agreed to switch to sustainably produced oil recently after huge public pressure and Ferrero (chocolate) and other big brands have become members of the Palm Oil Innovation Group.
‘But it’s so hard’ someone said to me recently, when I encouraged her not to buy the pretty handmade soaps she was planning to give all her friends for Christmas. It is not really, you simply need to ask if the ingredients are not printed on the packaging. If they are, all you have to do is read them and pop them back on the shelf if they do contain palm oil. There are soaps without palm oil – Rondavel make fabulous ones (including a vegan version! yay!). You can choose Flanagan’s crisps or ice cream made with real dairy. You could also bake your own muffins, or ask someone who needs a little extra income to provide you with sweet treats, made with ethically sourced ingredients.
If you are not particularly enamored by orangutans, Sumatran tigers and elephants and gazillions of the small guys are also being decimated, never mind the millions of Indonesians that rely on rain forests for their livelihoods – entire forest communities now face poverty and displacement. Learn a bit more about the issue.
Fortunately, we all learned to read in Primary School, so can put that skill to use in the supermarket queue. Reading labels is a good thing anyway as you never know what other nasties may be lurking. Even easier is simply not to buy anything in a package. I think that if something has to list the ingredients, it is not real food anyway. I’d rather eat leaves.
Oh, and you won’t believe it, but there is still a solitary orangutan, named Opal, in a cage at the Lion Park Zoo. Can she be the same one I met so many years ago? This makes me too sad for words. Compassionate friends are working hard to get her released to a sanctuary.
Images of orangutans are from an article by Sarah Arnold in the UK Mirror and the baby under the leaf is by photographer Andrew Suryono.